Wil­fred De’ath

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

They’d think I was Nor­man Bates.’ I thought he would get bored with teach­ing after the first few weeks. But he still mer­rily belts out Gil­bert and Sul­li­van be­tween breaks. Or does Hitler im­per­son­ations from his lat­est favourite film, Down­fall: ‘ Danken Gott Himm­ler sup­plied us with enough cyanide pills!’

Re­cently, a dis­con­cert­ing im­age started to form in my mind of Fred still tu­tor­ing the Chi­nese from home as his par­ents shuf­fled about on their Zim­mer frames.

‘So, how long will you be do­ing this Skype teach­ing lark, then?’ I asked, af­fect­ing an airy tone on a re­cent dusk walk at Poles­den Lacey.

‘In­def­i­nitely,’ said Fred. ‘It’s the per­fect oc­cu­pa­tion. Un­de­mand­ing. No com­mut­ing. I can be my own boss – work the hours I choose so that I can fit it around other pur­suits.’

‘Do these in­clude find­ing a flat in the New Year?’ asked his fa­ther hope­fully.

When we are bored, Betty and I like to eaves­drop. To our mild sur­prise, Fred has taken to tu­tor­ing like a duck to wa­ter.

Many of Fred’s stu­dents adopt what I imag­ine they think to be cool-sound­ing Western monikers: Peter Pan, Melody Woo, Tina Ping… But which re­ally seem more redo­lent of ca­su­ally racist comic names from a 1970s sit­com.

With a few ex­cep­tions, they all seem to hold their Sur­rey Mr Chips in high es­teem. ‘You very hand­some, Mr Fred!’ Tina Ping re­cently re­marked.

‘You are very hand­some,’ cor­rected Mr Fred.

Any glimpse into English sub­ur­ban life is pounced on with rel­ish. ‘Ah, dog! Dog!’ ex­claimed Jimmy Tong from Shaanxi prov­ince when Lupin was heard bark­ing at the Ocado de­liv­ery man.

‘Do you eat dogs?’ Fred then asked (steer­ing a tad off pro­nouns, I thought).

‘No, Mr Fred, I would never eat dog!’ said an in­dig­nant Jimmy Tong, adding that his el­derly rel­a­tives did.

When Mr Fred isn’t teach­ing, he has taken to cook­ing din­ner for ev­ery­one (his ex­otic dishes putting my al­most nightly spaghetti bolog­nese to shame).

‘What’s the Gal­lop­ing Gourmet cook­ing tonight?’ Mr Home Front ea­gerly asks when­ever I pick him up from the sta­tion.

Mean­while, Betty, ir­ri­tated be­yond be­lief by her brother’s new saintly per­sona, uses ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to re­mind us of his fail­ings.

‘Oh my God!’ comes the cry of de­spair. ‘He’s left the hot wa­ter/gas/lights on again!’

‘Cut the boy some slack,’ I re­ply. ‘It’s chicken tagine tonight.’ I was, at 17, the youngest or­di­nand in the Church of Eng­land. I thought I’d be­come the old­est, at 81, but it turns out that I am now too old. (They have low­ered the up­per age limit to 65, to take in to ac­count the cost of train­ing a priest).

So I thought I would try to be­come a li­censed lay min­is­ter (LLM) in­stead; for them, the up­per age limit is a bit more flex­i­ble.

Re­cently, there was a meet­ing to clas­sify this at a dio­cese meet­ing. I went along, dread­ing the thought of lots of ‘man­age­ment speak’ and my worst fears were re­alised: ‘de­liv­er­ing trans­ac­tional op­er­a­tions ef­fi­ciently whilst proac­tively part­ner­ing teach­ers and man­agers to de­velop and im­ple­ment ef­fec­tive ac­tion…’

God help us. It takes three years to be­come an LLM and it would take an­other three years to un­der­stand this. I sud­denly re­alised that it was not for me.

My fel­low can­di­dates, all 24 of them, were a dis­mal lot – pro­vin­cial no­bod­ies, I thought snob­bishly. Not a fine bishop or arch­bishop in sight. When the time came to in­tro­duce our­selves, we were all, my­self apart, ret­i­cent to the point of anonymity.

I boasted of hav­ing been a jour­nal­ist for 58 years (true) and hav­ing, in the 1970s, worked briefly as press sec­re­tary to Michael Ram­sey, Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury.

This did not go down well. I don’t sup­pose most of the no-hop­ers had ever heard of Michael Ram­sey. No doubt, they were ad­her­ents of Justin Welby, ‘the busi­ness­man in a dog col­lar’, as I call him, who is dab­bling in pol­i­tics when he should be try­ing to fill his empty pews.

A very fat man sit­ting next to me had come hun­dreds of miles for this meet­ing be­cause the LLM course in his dio­cese had been shut down, due to there be­ing no can­di­dates.

For sup­per, we were served a re­volt­ing quiche, my least favourite dish, fol­lowed by a choco­late mousse, a typ­i­cal Angli­can con­coc­tion.

Things bright­ened up a bit when a vicar friend of mine – and a great favourite with all the bish­ops – be­gan to speak. She is an at­trac­tive girl (woman) and she even came to see me in hos­pi­tal.

She has the pre­cious gift of telling it like it is. She told us what it takes to be­come a priest and the oth­ers were suit­ably im­pressed and, I fear, in­tim­i­dated…

On my way out, hav­ing achieved noth­ing and got nowhere, I gave her a copy of the cur­rent Oldie.

‘Does this mean you think I am old,’ she bri­dled.

‘No, it is me that is too old for all this,’ I said.

Michael Ram­sey, when I was at Lam­beth, used to start each day by bang­ing his head on his desk and say­ing three times, ‘I hate the Church of Eng­land!’ I un­der­stand what he meant. Who is Je­sus, Our Blessed Lord, amid all this ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal bu­reau­cracy? I have to say I am now very glad that I never got or­dained into the Church of Eng­land.

‘Yes, and the Church of Eng­land is glad, too,’ said an acer­bic friend of mine.

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